How Money, Emotion Mixed at Mix07

While staying at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas last week, I had the pleasure of waking up every morning to the gentle tolling of St. Mark’s Campanile, completed in 1514 before its 1902 collapse and 1912 reconstruction.

OK, that’s a lie.

I actually woke to a St. Mark’s Campanile replica, completed in 1999 somewhere in the middle of a desert. It’s all artifice out there in the desert, but it’s OK because that’s Vegas for you: a convenient stand-in for far-away places; evocative in every sense of the word.

It’s a method and it’s working well. Whoever planned Mix07 at Microsoft must have noticed. How else to explain the overwhelming emphasis on “the emotions of customer experience” I encountered in various sessions and keynote speeches at the conference last week?

The message was that companies ought to change their ideas of what value their products offer consumers. How people feel and experience your product needs to be a part of your value proposition, MIX speakers said in various ways.

“The new MBA is the MFA,” Kip Voytek, vice president at the interactive agency R/GA, told the audience attending his session, “Futures of Design: Knowing Smirks vs. Delighted Grins.”

His firm is perhaps best known for its work to convince Nike to let customers design their own shoes. That went well and Nike most recently let R/GA tack an interactive music video to its online store. Despite Web design conventions that insist you stay out of the way as customers head to their online checkout counters, Voytek said, the move helped boost Nike’s sales.

The trick to marketing and design success, Voytek said, was eliciting “delighted grins” from users and customers, such as the way the log-in screen on Macs shakes when a user inputs a wrong password instead of popping up an error message.

Fine. I own a Mac. I appreciate the way it doesn’t numb my brain with error numbers and the blue screen of death. I also own an iPod, another Voytek favorite.

But I draw the line at Nintendogz, a handheld videogame version of the pet rock, which Voytek described as “unbelievable” in how quickly it breaks down the emotional barrier between humans and machines. Voytek recalled how women in his office “squealed” with delight when working his Game Boy to pet the puppies on its screen.

There’s a difference between a puppy and pixels arranged on a screen, just like there’s a difference between the Grand Canal and the pool winding through the mall attached to the Venetian.

I can’t help but feel a real revulsion toward companies that assume we can’t tell that difference.

Now take a stroll down the strip.

At the base of the Statue of Liberty replica in front of the New York, New York Hotel and Casino, the owners house a collection of personal articles belonging to the victims of the World Trade Center attacks. Sure, the proprietors may be capitalizing on American nationalism and Americans’ disposition toward victimhood, but at least they’re not letting the terrorists win, right? At least they offer just the salve for that victimhood with plenty to consume inside.

But you already know about Vegas. Surely no one at Mix urged conference attendees to leverage the emotional weight of a national tragedy for profit, right?

None except for Lou Carbon, who presented “The Emotion of Customer Experience.” In his presentation, Carbon highlighted ways companies capitalize on the emotions consumers associate with products.

Blockbuster, for instance, is best marketing itself as a provider of laughter and tears. Hotels fold their toilet paper. And FedEx cares about you because it returned penguins to the New Orleans aquarium after Hurricane Katrina.

We learned this during a five-minute video titled “The Return of the Penguins,” brought to you by FedEx.

Not that FedEx shouldn’t be commended for its generous work with displaced penguins, but does Hurricane Katrina really belong in anyone’s advertising campaign?

The answer is no and I have two reasons why.

First, turning a national tragedy into a brand with which to associate your product over-saturates the market with emotions associated with that tragedy. The more Chevy shows us pictures of New Orleans underwater in order to sell trucks, the less those pictures will cause viewers to think, “People died who shouldn’t have died. What can we do about that?”

Instead they’ll think about how they hate your commercial.

The second reason to not fake emotions in your marketing is that it’s completely unnecessary to drive profits.

Google is a good example. The company turns in good profits each quarter. And other than its ridiculous “Don’t be Evil” motto, Google pretty much stays away from emotional marketing. Its value proposition is pure bottom line. Buy an ad. Boost your business.

On the flipside is Las Vegas, where construction is as ubiquitous as buffets, where money is coming in, and which thrives on emotional artifice.

But the truth is that the fakery on display in Vegas serves the same purpose it does everywhere else. It is meant to trick the “consumer.” Vegas has to offer an “emotional” value proposition because its real one is pretty poor for its customers. The house always wins.

The only reason companies ever attempt this trickery is because, to use Chevy as a final example, it’s a lot easier to cobble together a video of a truck and splice it with tragic scenes from American history, than it is to make better cars than Toyota.

Thing is, we “consumers” know that and we aren’t buying it anymore.

Nicholas Carlson is senior associate editor for

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